Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Agent Provocative 

In the 1960s Anthony Poshepny was a CIA operative whose macabre Southeast Asian exploits drew comparisons with Col. Kurtz, the megalomaniacal anti-hero of Apocalypse Now

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
Comments

Page 3 of 4

"Most people don't realize, the CIA was created to do the things the country couldn't do out in the open," says Shirley. "Nothing we did was legal. Everything we did was illegal. 'Plausible deniability' was the name of the game."

After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French cleared out of all of Indochina, including Laos; the U.S. was eager to fill the resulting political vacuum, to keep Communists from stepping in. In 1961, Poshepny was dropped into Laos near the border to Thailand, along with a couple of other CIA operatives, including Shirley. Their mission, called Operation Momentum, involved the quiet training of a tribe of hill people called the Meo -- later called the Hmong -- to use modern-day weaponry against the Communist front in North Vietnam.

Operation Momentum expanded quickly until nearly 10,000 tribesmen were armed and ready. The tribesmen would make quick, guerrilla strikes on the North Vietnamese, blowing up a bridge here, booby-trapping a trail there, while the U.S. involvement was kept virtually invisible.

The Geneva Accords of 1962 only increased the CIA's clandestine activities, according to Warner's account. Under the accords, Laos was declared a neutral country, forcing North Vietnamese, Soviet, and American armed forces to officially leave the country. From then on, Laos was no man's land, while behind the scenes, the major military powers continued to play chess with each other, using the Lao people as pawns. In 1964, the CIA received its first confirmation that the Communists were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to provide troops and supplies to South Vietnam. In March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines landed in South Vietnam; that number would grow to 184,000 soldiers by year's end.

Poshepny says he was living in North Laos in January of 1965 when he saw North Vietnamese soldiers advancing upon his training site and his home, a thatched hut that leaked during the monsoon season, when sheets of rain would turn the dirt floor into mud. The rainy season had ended, giving way to drier, foggy days, but there was still no running water, no electricity. He was subsisting on Spam, beans, and White Horse scotch. It was the day Lyndon Johnson was being sworn in as president, Poshepny recalls.

Poshepny says he was eating lunch when he saw the troops, "leapfrogging" in groups of twos and threes along the base's airplane landing strip. One group of North Vietnamese would get up and run, while the others would fire their guns to protect the advancing group.

Poshepny began firing at the soldiers with an M-1 carbine. He waited until he saw a soldier get up and then aimed for the head. "I kept hitting them as they got up, popping them in the head, until they stopped coming. Somebody looked through some binoculars and saw 17 bodies along the edge of the strip," he says.

Poshepny and a few of his troops went out to check the bodies for paperwork, when three soldiers hidden in the brush started firing at them. A bullet went into Poshepny's stomach and out his hip, knocking him to the ground. The three soldiers came out of the brush, firing at the rest of Poshepny's troops. As quickly as he could, Poshepny says, he lined up his grenades next to him on the ground, pulled the spoons, then began lobbing them in the direction of the North Vietnamese soldiers until all signs of human life were obliterated from the runway.

When Poshepny got up, he saw that the tribesmen who had followed him to the strip had been killed. He says he then walked back to the camp with half his hip gone, using his rifle as a cane. "When my people saw me coming out of the mist alive ... they were simply amazed," he says. "They thought I must have had some magic protecting me, so they all came up wanting to touch me. 'Stay close to Tony, he protect you,' they said."

As the war in Vietnam escalated, so did Poshepny's drinking, until, he says, he was downing a quart of lao-lao, the native whiskey, before breakfast. "I drank before I went out to kill," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that."

But the more Poshepny drank, the more of a nuisance he became to his superiors. And the more of a nuisance he became, the farther away his bosses told him to go, hoping to keep him out of trouble; eventually, the commando was pushed all the way to the China border. Poshepny was under strict orders not to engage in combat, but the farther away he went, the more belligerent he became.

After sacking one village, he says, he married the chieftain's daughter, giving the father a dowry of 100 water buffalo and 75 goats. "She had a terrific wiggle," he says with a grin. "Better still, she was Catholic." Poshepny may have been pleased, but his marriage was yet another violation of CIA rules, which forbid agents from becoming romantically involved with their "clients" for security reasons.

On the China border, Poshepny began training a new tribe, 10,000 people who then were called the Yao, and now are called the Mein. As the years passed, Poshepny's reputation as a maniacal, coldblooded killer grew among Americans familiar with his work, while among the tribes, he became respected as a leader who cared about his people. He says he took members of the Yao on airborne reconnaissance missions across the China border. When he ran low on ammunition, he put grenades in glass jars, pulled the spoons, and dropped them from the helicopter. When he ran out of grenades, he says, he dropped smooth, round river stones, which could smash straight through the roof of a jeep.

Poshepny stories are changeable, and he has changed them from time to time in regard to the collection and dissemination of human body parts. He admits that he collected ears, a practice he kept from his days on Iwo Jima. Heads are a different matter. Sometimes he says he kept the heads of his enemies in formaldehyde; other times he says he put them on stakes, according to local customs, and let the tribespeople throw pebbles at them. Yet other times, he says he dropped them from his helicopter like the round river stones.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Slideshows

  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"